Caving on the Cross

After losing $12 million bequest, William & Mary agrees to a permanent display in historic chapel.
March 7, 2007

The cross is coming back for good to the Wren Chapel at the College of William & Mary.

The college's president and board issued a joint statement Tuesday saying that the cross -- whose removal led to months of controversy -- would be returning. The statement called the new policy a "compromise," but it amounted to an abrupt reversal for President Gene R. Nichol. He originally ordered the cross removed last year -- except when used in religious services -- so the chapel could be used by groups and students of all faiths or of no faith without people feeling that a central focal point of campus life was officially designated as Christian. He said at the time that he had heard from students of a number of faiths who avoided the chapel, one of the most historic and celebrated places on the campus, because it made them feel excluded.

In February, the board announced that it would wait for the recommendations of a panel appointed by Nichol to examine the cross in the context of larger questions about religion and public universities. That report was expected in April. But Tuesday's announcement said that the panel recommended the return of the cross immediately, and that the professors would then turn to the larger questions raised about religion and public higher education. Under the new policy, the cross will be returned for permanent display in a glass case and will be taken out when used in religious services. People of other faiths will be allowed to have their sacred objects also stored in the chapel.

The two co-chairs of the faculty committee -- James Livingston and Alan J. Meese -- issued a statement on their decision: "The committee’s recommendation is unanimous. We hope that this policy regarding the display of the Wren cross will put this immediate controversy to rest. We knew our short-term mission was to come up with a proposal that would allow this college to come together and move forward as a community. We are confident this recommendation accomplishes that goal. We now look forward to examining the broader question of the role of religion at a public university.”

Meese, a professor of law, said in an interview Tuesday night that after the committee had its first meeting, members decided "it wasn't doable to deal both with the cross and the broader questions of religion and the public university" in the initial time frame "so we decided to focus our efforts on the cross question." Meese said that he was among the committee members who disagreed with the Nichol decision last year to remove the cross. Asked what he would tell a non-Christian student upset by having one of the most historic and public spaces on campus identified as a Christian space, Meese declined to comment.

William & Mary officials have faced widespread criticism for the decision to remove the cross from permanent display -- even as the college has pointed out that for most of the chapel's history there was no cross in it. While student leaders have said that the issue hasn't dominated campus discussion, many alumni have been outraged. The college acknowledged last week that a donor had said that he would rewrite his will to remove a $12 million bequest to the college because of the cross controversy.

Meese declined to talk about any relationship between donor pressure and the cross decision, saying that as a faculty member, he was not involved in donor relations. But he said that the committee understood that the board wanted "an expedited process" for reviewing the issues, if possible. While William & Mary administrators could not be reached Tuesday night, The Flat Hat, the student newspaper, quoted Nichol as saying at a news conference that he would reach out to donors who were angry over his decision last year.

“It is my charge and obligation to work hard to reach out and to create an environment and heal our relationships with all our alumni,” he said.

Vince Haley, a William & Mary alumnus who organized the Save the Wren Cross movement, said via e-mail last night that he was "very grateful" for Tuesday's news. "The religion committee deserves great credit for swift action and leadership. Its unanimous judgment to return the cross is an unambiguous repudiation of the destructive idea that William & Mary should ever tolerate any intolerance of religious symbols."

Haley's group gathered more than 17,000 signatures on a petition calling for the return of the cross. A rival petition, supporting Nichol's original decision, has more than 2,000 signatures.

Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that Nichol's decision to remove the cross was "a principled stand, in keeping with the pluralism that ought to be in effect at any public university." Conn said that "principles got lost in the uproar," and that this was particularly sad to see in Virginia, and at Thomas Jefferson's alma mater, given their role in creating the ideas of religious freedom.

"I think this got drawn into the so-called culture war," Conn said. "The Christian right is advocating the view that this is a Christian nation and everyone else is a second-class citizen. Every American is a first-class citizen, regardless of their views on religion." What Nichol did originally, Conn said, reflected support for pluralism. "It's about welcoming students of all faiths and none."


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